Should The Left Support A Universal Basic Income? Yes
Anne B. Ryan and John Baker see the implementation of a Universal Basic Income as a step towards the creation of a more progressive society.
A Universal Basic Income (UBI), or put more simply ‘basic income’, is a regular payment from the state to each individual, sufficient for a frugal but decent standard of living without additional income from other sources. Basic income is always tax-free and replaces social welfare payments, child benefit, the state pension and tax credits as we currently know them. It is paid to everyone, so reaches people in need without complicated conditions or demeaning supplication. People with high incomes get basic income, too, but pay it back through the tax system. Basic income establishes basic financial security as a right to all members of society, whether they engage in paid work or not.
Basic income is not a panacea, but it can help to address a surprisingly wide range of problems. It can also help to create conditions for longer-term social transformations.
Basic income would establish greater economic security for many groups of workers: insecure workers with no or limited sick pay, holiday pay or pension rights; other employees with low wages; self-employed people with limited and insecure income; and those doing valuable unpaid work, including care work. Basic income would also support students and trainees.
Basic income would avoid the ‘benefits trap’ faced by many unemployed people: if they take paid work, especially lowpaid or temporary, they often lose out financially, while facing a bureaucratic quagmire of procedures and conditions. With basic income, there would always be a financial gain from paid work, with no sanctions for either accepting or refusing it.
Basic income would support small-scale innovation, including creative self-employment, communities developing social enterprises, and cooperatives. These forms of economic activity will be central to the development of a post-capitalist society.
Basic income would strengthen workers’ bargaining power. Because no one would be forced into a job by the threat of destitution, no one would have to take low-paid, low-quality work simply to get by. No one would be chained to work they considered to be personally, socially or environmentally harmful. Basic income would serve as a ready-made strike fund.
Basic income would also provide all workers with more freedom to leave paid work temporarily for a wide range of reasons, including caring for others, improving one’s skills, personal self-development, or simply taking time off. Taken together, these dynamics would have a major impact on economic inequality. Not only would they reduce income inequality through a guaranteed minimum income and better access to paid work, but they would reduce inequality in the quality of people’s work and in power relations in the workplace. Everyone recognises the egalitarian credentials of unconditional, universal rights to clean water and sanitation, education and healthcare. UBI extends the same logic to the right to a decent standard of living.
Over a longer timeframe, basic income would contribute to the conditions for matching the total amount of paid work to our real human needs, using increases in productivity to reduce working hours, eliminate pointless jobs and move to a post-carbon economy. Of course, these objectives require many other changes in economic priorities and structures, but basic income would provide the economic security necessary to underpin those changes.
Ultimately, the question raised by basic income is: Should a post-capitalist economy continue to coerce people into paid employment? Or should it unconditionally guarantee everyone a decent standard of living?
Like any other progressive policy, basic income needs to be part of a broader programme of change. It must not, and need not, serve as an excuse for denying everyone access to well-paid, high-quality work, for ignoring structural inequalities of class, gender or ethnicity, for failing to provide good, universal public services, for tolerating inadequate provision for housing and childcare, or for perpetuating a dysfunctional financial system. On the contrary, basic income will be a better policy in a better society.
Basic income is not a panacea. But it would immediately help to address some major issues, and would play an essential role in the wider transformations to which we on the Left aspire.
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